Next time, build stronger case against Bashir

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2005, 12:00am

Given the weakness of the evidence presented against Abu Bakar Bashir in the Indonesian terrorism trial that ended yesterday, it is not surprising that judges declined to convict him of the most serious charges. Instead, they gave Bashir 21/2 years in prison for conspiracy in the Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people in 2002.

Considering the number of lives lost in that incident, and considering that Bashir served 18 months on far lighter immigration charges, prosecutors should be thinking seriously about appealing for a longer sentence.

The overall outcome of the trial is hardly satisfactory but can largely be blamed on a weak government case. Any future attempts to prosecute Bashir must overcome these obstacles.

Witnesses who could have linked Bashir more strongly to leadership of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) group - blamed for the Bali bombing and later the JW Marriott hotel attack in Jakarta - changed their minds or refused to testify. Others have apparently not been made available by US authorities holding them in custody. Only one named him as JI's spiritual leader, while none would testify that Bashir ordered the attacks.

The strongest evidence to surface during this latest trial was a conversation between Bashir and convicted Bali bomber Amrozi. He told Bashir he was planning with friends to 'hold an event' in Bali. Bashir's reply: 'It is up to you. You are the ones who know the situation on the ground.'

Even before yesterday's verdict there were worrying signs about the trial's outcome, including prosecutors dropping their most serious claims. Similar problems plagued a 2003 trial that found the cleric guilty only of returning to Indonesia from foreign exile illegally.

Counting time already served, Bashir could be out of jail by next October. This time should perhaps be used building a solid case against him and laying the groundwork for a successful prosecution. The reluctance of witnesses in both previous trials would seem to indicate that they are being intimidated; measures need to be put in place to ensure their protection and participation. US and other foreign co-operation in making witnesses available must also be obtained.

Prosecutors should be reluctant to bring a new case until such matters are sorted out as it only serves to burnish Bashir's credentials as a persecuted independence fighter if he is repeatedly put on trial for charges that cannot be proven.

Governments that are concerned about the rise of militant Islam in the region - or that have lost citizens in JI-linked violence - are understandably anxious to see behind bars the man they believe to be the group's mastermind. But the rule of law cannot be subverted to achieve this aim. Justice would best be served if Jakarta focused on building and bringing a strong case against Bashir.